Imagine someone falsely impersonating you -- another "you" running around, renting an apartment, draining your accounts and even maxing out credit cards in your name. This is the unfortunate reality for those who have suffered from identity theft, and there are scores of thieves out there who can't wait to live your life to the fullest.
Your identity is your treasure -- a handful of key pieces of critical information including your name, Social Security number, address, phone number and your mother's maiden name. Thieves are also after any account numbers or passwords they can use to get access to your money.
What can an identity thief do with my information?
An identity thief can use the information they've collected to:
Make charges to your credit cards or open new ones.
- Counterfeit your checks and clone your ATM/debit cards.
- Open accounts or take out loans in your name.
- Obtain driver's licenses and receive medical services.
- Receive government benefits.
- File fraudulent tax returns.
- Apply for jobs and rent apartments.
- Break the law and blame you.
How did they find my personal information?
A popular way thieves access your information is electronically, but thieves are not above digging through your trash. Common methods include:
- Stealing mail or trash and researching public data.
- Stealing payment/ID cards or the information on them.
- Eavesdropping on public transactions.
- Hacking information from corporate databases.
- Impersonating an organization or business through email (phishing).
- Viewing information you provide on social networking websites.
How can I keep my information safe?
Here's how to stop thieves in their tracks:
- Be careful anytime you provide your Social Security number.
- Shred all charge receipts, credit applications, insurance forms, checks, statements, expired credit cards and credit card offers.
- Choose intricate passwords for your online logins.
- Use a password to protect any sensitive information on your personal computer.
- Implement safety tools such as a firewall or antivirus program on your computer.
- Always verify sources requesting information and only provide what is necessary.
- Be careful about how much personal information you post on social networks.
- Beware of conducting important business online over free/unprotected wireless networks. Free can mean less security.
There are identity protection services such as ID theft insurance that provide coverage based on policy limits. Some only cover certain forms of ID theft, like electronic theft, while others cover lost wages. Visit ftc.gov to learn more.
Identity thieves can run up bills you'll often be responsible for, and if you don't discover these charges until they go into delinquency, your credit score could suffer too. Fortunately, in most cases, the largest cost of ID theft is clearing your name. Prevention and detection are key defenses. Always review your account statements for changes or purchases you didn't make, and check your credit report at least once per year for any suspicious activity.